Education is better through stories

Storytelling is an innate part of human behaviour. Since we evolved as a species, it’s been an integral part of how we make sense of the world. From the early cave paintings to Skype catch-up sessions with friends, we use storytelling to communicate, connect and learn from each other. Telling stories and listening to them makes experiences real and meaningful to us. This is why storytelling is such a powerful tool in education, because when used successfully it switches on the part of the brain that stores and remembers information. When we acquire knowledge and understanding, we’re learning.
Here’s a little insight into why storytelling is so important in education.

How does storytelling engage students?

Storytelling creates more meaningful learning opportunities than just being presented with facts and information. This is because stories contain people and we’re hard-wired to connect with human motives, feelings and experiences.
Imagine a story about a postman who loves his job and wants to deliver his letters successfully; we’re rooting for him to succeed. What draws us into the story even deeper is conflict. Maybe he got out of bed the wrong side and, from then on, everything went wrong. His van wouldn’t start, his sack broke, the wind blew his letters into the road and because it’d been raining, the addresses got smudged. This scenario would make us wonder whether he’d succeed and how he might overcome this adversity.
Through this narrative journey we connect emotionally with the postman because we care about the outcome. This is why story is so powerful; it gives the opportunity for growth and change, both in the characters and reflected in us.

How does storytelling benefit students?

When students become engaged with stories it sparks an interest in the motives of the characters and the conflicts they face. This fires them up, promotes expression of ideas and purposeful discussion. By becoming emotionally invested in the story, students are more switched on to any learning opportunities that follow. Storytelling can be used in all areas of the curriculum. By engaging students, stories promote listening and create opportunities for interaction. This brings people closer together and creates ‘flow’ in the learning.

What can be taught through storytelling?

Storytelling can be used to teach anything. For example, we can learn about the law of gravity through the story of Isaac Newton and his quest to find the answers to life’s problems. One day he was sitting under an apple tree when an apple fell on his head and, because he couldn’t stop wondering why, the law of gravity was born. Knowing this story makes us connect with the science more than any factual explanation would.
Going back to the postman story, if younger children (primary school level) become engaged with this narrative, they are invested in him delivering his letters. Follow-up activities might be sorting pretend letters into the order of house numbers, and odd and even to assist the postman in delivering them. Students could rewrite the addresses so the postman could read them more clearly. With the appropriate materials they can design and make a better sack for him.
With a well-written story, learning opportunities are endless because the audience are emotionally invested and motivated which makes the experience more meaningful and memorable.

How can education promote learning through storytelling?

By researching different genres such as traditional tales, folklore or legends to get ideas. You can also create your own stories if you have specific learning outcomes in mind. Keep stories simple but include a strong character with interesting motives. Create conflict to get in the way of the main character to encourage emotional investment in the story. Practise telling stories in different ways to engage students. Give your students opportunities to interact by repeating key phrases or even using props to join in.
Some academic subjects are more story based than others, for example English, history and RE, though storytelling can be used in drier subjects such as maths. Mathematical equations have conflict and resolution in common with stories, so if you tell the story of a farmer who has 30 sheep but can only afford 5 pens you are using story to paint a picture of a division problem.
Storytelling is a powerful tool for learning, especially with younger children. By engaging learners in this way they are far more likely to retain information, enjoy their learning and pick up many other important skills in the process.
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